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A Strategy for All Seasons

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Is it time to jump out the window? Bad as it may seem, the stock market’s worst yearly start ever — even compared to dreaded years like 1929, 1987, 2000, and 2008 — needs some perspective.

Even after factoring in the fast and furious losses of early January, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) is still up 221% while the Nasdaq Composite ETF (ONEQ) is ahead by 284% and the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (DIA) is up 190% since the March 9, 2009 market bottom. In other words, 2016′s losses are still just a flesh wound.

Nevertheless, it would be completely unreasonable to assume the worst is over for the stock market.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the total U.S. stock market has delivered consecutive yearly gains, lulling many retail investors (and even some financial advisors) into a false sense of comfort. When stock markets only go up, as they have mostly done over the past seven years, people have a tendency to lose discipline and underestimate risk.

While there are differing philosophies about how to best build a portfolio of ETFs, now more than ever, it’s crucial for advisors to have a disciplined framework. During favorable markets, portfolio flaws are masked by a rising tide; but when market conditions are deteriorating, portfolio flaws are exposed. To that end, I’ve developed what I call an “all season” portfolio strategy that has three key cornerstones. Let’s examine them together.

Core Portfolio

An investor’s core portfolio will always have low cost and broad exposure to the five major asset classes: stocks, bonds, commodities, real estate and cash. Instead of jumping in and out of these various asset classes, the core portfolio maintains constant exposure to each of these areas while conforming the portfolio’s asset allocation to the investor’s goals, age, time horizon and risk comfort level.

With the exception of cash, there are plenty of solid core ETF choices that provide broad diversification to each of these key areas. For example, the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT) is a great example of a fund that offers core exposure to the global equity marketplace in just one trade. VT covers 98% of the world’s investable market cap and does it for just 0.17%.

Because people’s core portfolio is essentially the foundation of their entire portfolio, it should never represent less than 51% of their total investable assets. Like a well-built home, the foundation can never be smaller than the structure’s subsequent floors and if it is, the building is at risk of tipping over.

Non-Core Portfolio

In contrast to the core portfolio, the hallmark of an investor’s non-core portfolio is that it has the freedom to invest in non-core assets like individual stocks and commodities, leveraged funds/ETFs, currencies, art and other collectibles, actively managed funds, hedge funds, private equity and venture capital.

Key characteristics of a non-core portfolio is that it is generally more concentrated, more volatile, more active, more expensive and higher risk.

“Tactical” would be a fitting one-word adjective to describe a non-core portfolio. If the stock market is sinking, for instance, the non-core portfolio can own a leveraged short ETF like the Direxion Daily Small Cap Bear 3x Shares (TZA). TZA is designed to increase in value when small cap stocks fall.

Unfortunately, many investors have erringly built the foundation of their investment portfolio with non-core building blocks. As a result, the risk characer of their portfolio ends up being incompatible with their true risk tolerance. And during unfavorble markets or other unforseen events, these incompatiblities can severly impair a person’s net worth and long-term investment plan.

The most important thing to remember about the non-core portion of a portfolio is that it always serves in a complimentary role to the much larger core portfolio. Here’s another way to think about it: A person’s non-core portfolio is the appetizer, the core portfolio is the main course. As a matter of portfolio building best practices, never overstuff your clients on appetizers, while leaving no room for the main course. It’s no way to eat and it’s certainly no way to invest!

Margin of Safety

The concept of “margin of safety” was originally developed in the 1930s by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, the founders of modern day value investing. Unlike today’s faceless generation of “robo-advisors” that have never experienced a bear market, let alone survived one, Graham and Dodd lived through the Great Depression so they understood the importance of investing with safety.

Although their idea was applied to selecting individual stocks at undervalued prices, Dodd and Graham’s principles about safety are applicable to anyone with a portfolio of investments that includes not just stocks, but bonds, real estate, and even commodities.

Installing a margin of safety within your client portfolios should always happen before a negative market incident. Why? Because the prudent investor does not wait for a market crash or other adverse global event to build a margin of safety within an investment portfolio. Rather, the portfolio’s margin of safety — just like an insurance policy — is purchased ahead of the accident or crisis in order to protect capital. Investing money without a margin of safety, whether done deliberately or out of plain ignorance, is negligent.

The argument often made by clients against having a margin of safety is that “I’m a long-term investor” or “the stock market always bounces back.” Neither excuse is a form of prudent risk management, but rather laziness, ignorance, negligence or all three.

Certain individual investors believe they are too wealthy, too experienced, and too smart to have a margin of safety inside their portfolio. It’s a paradox too, because this same group that invests without a margin of safety (or insurance), has insurance (or margin of safety) on their automobiles, homes and lives. Somewhere along the line, this group of people lacks the same prudent sense to protect their financial assets.

Margin of safety money is always invested in assets that guarantee principal and income. In other words, investing in gold and bonds is not appropriate for a portfolio’s margin of safety because these types of assets can and do lose market value. For example, anybody who bought gold at its height in mid-2011 is now down almost 50%. It’s a tough lesson and firsthand experience that gold is an inappropriate tool for margin of safety money.

Implementing a portfolio’s margin of safety should happen when market conditions are favorable, not when it’s raining cannonballs. And if you’re caught in the unfortunate situation where a prospect or client failed to implement a margin of safety during good times and market conditions have deteriorated, the next most logical moment to implement their margin of safety is immediately.

Structural Soundness

Building an architecturally sound investment portfolio doesn’t happen by chance. It’s happens through due diligence, discipline and replicable process.

Based upon the research I’ve done at, all structurally strong and healthy portfolios have three crucial parts: 1) the portfolio’s core, 2) the portfolio’s non-core, and 3) the portfolio’s margin of safety. Each of these distinct containers within your client’s portfolio will complement the other parts by deliberating holding non-overlapping assets.

In the end, it’s important for financial advisors to build multi-dimensional, anti-fragile investment portfolios that can deliver satisfactory results not just when the sun is shining, but when it starts to hail.


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